Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When you’ve spent the better part of 30 years traipsing all over the country to visit broadcast facilities, you end up realizing you’ve filled in a lot of your mental map of America. New York? Seen it. Los Angeles? Been there. Chicago? Can navigate it blindfolded.
But there are still gaps to be filled, and for a long time, the other big cities of Texas were among the largest of those gaps for us. We’ve spent lots of time in and around Dallas and Fort Worth (and we’ll get back there yet on the 2019 trip we’re recounting now). We saw Austin in pretty great depth during our 2017 Radio Show visit – check out those stories here, here and here if you missed them.
We’d planned to see more in 2017, traversing the big stretched triangle that connects Austin to San Antonio and Houston, but the weather rather aggressively intervened, leaving us with two more years of a blank spot on our mental map where I-35 and I-10 converge in what’s arguably Texas’ most historic city.
We began fixing that somewhat late on what was supposed to be our first day in San Antonio: we got a later start than planned out of Waco, spent too much time chasing AM towers in Temple, had too long a lunch in Austin – and so by the time we’d made an obligatory Buc-ee’s stop in New Braunfels and grabbed some legal IDs in San Marcos, there wasn’t that much daylight left in the day to begin seeing the sites here.
Where to begin? We were already staying a little bit southeast of downtown, so the logical starting point was farther out to the southeast, where most of San Antonio’s TV stations transmit from a tower farm out near Elmendorf, Texas, near where Loop 1604 (the far outer loop around the San Antonio metro) meets US 181.
Out here, tucked down dead-end roads amidst horse pastures, there are five tall towers in fairly close proximity, with the city’s “big three” stations sharing two nearby towers at the end of the aptly-named Tower Road.
Buckle in and let’s go for a history ride: behind a gate to the left at the end of Tower Road is the current incarnation of the “Texas Tall Tower,” the joint venture of NBC affiliate WOAI-TV (Channel 4) and CBS affiliate KENS (Channel 5). Both stations started downtown, WOAI in 1949 at a tower next to its longtime studio on Navarro Street, KENS (as KEYL) a few months later in 1950 from a site atop what was then the city’s tallest building, the Transit Tower.
The two stations combined facilities out here in late 1958, next door to a new tower that had just gone up for WOAI (1200) after its previous tower in Selma, Texas had been felled by a plane crash in 1956.
As we’ll see later in our San Antonio visit, WOAI’s AM station is long gone from here (though we’d later learn that we’d driven right by a short tower here that can still serve as an emergency WOAI aux site). The original Texas Tall Tower, some 1350 feet, has been replaced by a newer version for digital TV, just over 1500 feet tall, still carrying the stacked antennas for WOAI and KENS. (And we wonder: did the “WOAI-TV” callsign stay on the building for all the years, from 1974 until 2002, when channel 4 had changed calls to KMOL?)
Just to the right of the Texas Tall Tower gate, Tower Road ends at another double set of gates, which lead back to another tall tower for San Antonio’s third station. The ABC affiliate on channel 12 started as KONO-TV in 1957 from its studio site on St. Mary’s Street in the city, but soon moved to this 1400-footer out here.
A newer cluster of towers sit to the north of the Tower Road sites: closest to the Texas Tall Tower, and easily seen from its gate, is the tower that’s home to Univision’s KWEX (Channel 41), one of the oldest Spanish-language TV stations in the US, as well as to several FMs: KROM (92.9) and KVBH (107.5) are Univision sister stations to KWEX, while KISS-FM (99.5) and KSMG (105.3) are Cox stations that are tenants.
Another trio of towers to the north hold some newer TV signals: Fox affiliate KABB (Channel 29) has been at its 1400-foot tower site just east of Loop 1604 since it signed on in 1987, while slightly shorter towers to the east hold Telemundo’s KVDA (Channel 60) and TBN’s KHCE (Channel 23), both of which signed on in 1989.
Moving closer to San Antonio, Calaveras Lake sits west of Loop 1604, and to the west of Calaveras Lake off Foster Road we find the 960-foot tower of San Antonio’s PBS station, KLRN (Channel 9), now also home to Alpha’s KTFM (94.1).
KLRN was an unusual dual-city signal for its first decades, licensed to San Antonio but with studios in Austin and a tower halfway between in New Braunfels. After signing on a separate Austin signal, KLRU (Channel 18), KLRN built a San Antonio-specific tower here in 1984, and it sure is pretty against the water near sunset.
“Near” sunset, however, still means half an hour of daylight – and off we go to chase a few of the AM towers east of San Antonio before we run out of light and time.
Spanish-language KEDA (1540) hit the air as a kilowatt daytimer in 1966 from a site in southwest San Antonio, but in 1979 it went full-time with 5 kW day, 1 kW night from this six-tower array on Sulphur Springs Road in Boldtville, just a mile or so north of where KLRN would build its tower a few years later.
(It uses three towers by day, all six after dark, with a tight beam eastward into San Antonio when on the night pattern.)
Continue north up Foster Road toward US 87 and you might find yourself humming the Doobie Brothers, because a right turn heading eastward on 87 brings you right into China Grove, that part of the Lone Star State where the people don’t seem to care and just keep on looking to the east.
The actual China Grove, Texas is just a couple of convenience stores and fast-food places, or so it appears along 87 – but it’s also home to a big AM array.
KSLR (630) runs 5000 watts day from these four towers, which have been out here since 1949; it used to do nights out here, too, but now it has a separate night site way out east along I-10, which we missed on this trip.
The China Grove site came about when was then KMAC, one of San Antonio’s oldest stations, moved from 1240. (In one of the weird quirks of the NARBA shuffle of 1941, KMAC actually went from its pre-NARBA channel of 1370, then shared with KONO, to 1400 for just a few months in 1941 before landing on 1240. Why wasn’t it on 1210 pre-NARBA? Because WOAI was then on 1190, which was just too close.)
With daylight rapidly receding, we have time for just one more AM site out here, and this one almost eludes us: a gate keeps us from getting very close to the two-tower array of KAHL (1310), tucked away at the end of a road near Martinez, a couple of miles north of China Grove near I-10. As KIWW, this station actually started on 1540 in 1948, and it was its move to full-time operation on 1310 here in Martinez in 1959 that freed up 1540 for eventual reuse by KEDA. 1310 was later KUBO, KBUC and KXTN before taking on its present adult standards format (“Call 1310”).
And while we’ve now seen most of San Antonio’s TV sites, a few FMs and a few AMs, there’s a lot more awaiting us on our second day here – join us again for next week’s installment and we’ll see some studios!
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Next week: San Antonio – Some Studios!